WHAT IS YOUR TRAINING PHILOSOPHY? Reply

My speciality is designing workouts for individuals with specific sport performance goals and helping athletes come back from injury.  I also get lots of requests to design programs for people like me who are looking to stay fit and lean while minimizing additional wear and tear on their body.

I understand this battle.  On the one hand intensity and hard work bring results.  On the other hand, half a lifetime of competitive sport takes its toll and keeping our joints healthy is more important than hitting a personal best in the gym.

From my perspective, the pendulum in the fitness industry has swung from a focus on just getting moving to the average person wanting to perform high intensity lifting and training with specific training goals.  While this might bring a lot of motivation, I think the long-term sustainability of this approach is extremely low.

The bottom line is that our bodies are not designed to withstand repeated high intensity loading.  While certain people train this way and escape the laws of joint biomechanics, the majority will see promising short-term results at the expense of long-term health and function.

As much as hitting a personal best at the age 0f 35 or 40 is a nice idea, it’s simply not sustainable over a lifetime.  At some point you have to let go of the “dream” and accept the “reality”.

I’m looking for the biggest bang for my buck using training methods that are the least negatively stressful on my body (note: I said negatively stressful; I want positive stress or stress that causes a favourable adaptive response).

This doesn’t mean training is easy.  Easy training will get you nowhere.

The key to a training program’s success is creating a meaningful energy flux (i.e. creating a disturbance in energy balance) and stimulating the body’s adaptive response.  The more frequently we cause an energy flux, the better the results.  The better our timing of changing the training stimulus in light of the body’s non-linear change in its adaptive response, the better the results.

However, the energy flux has to be achieved with movements that impose the least possible joint load.  As a PhD trainee, I have spent many hours observing arthroscopic knee procedures in young athletes and older athletes alike.  What I can tell you with certainty is that participation in high intensity sport activities and injury lead to articular cartilage degeneration in both the older athlete and the younger athlete.

Joint degeneration is somewhat unavoidable but the amount of degeneration we experience and how we manage its progression once we have it can be controlled.

So, if you were a high level gymnast, football player, or hockey player, and you put your body through hell for 15 years with high level competition, there’s no way that continuing to expose your joints to excessive loading makes sense especially if you can get fit and lean using a smarter approach.

My training philosophy is based on well established training principles and on the relevant scientific data focused on adaptations to training.  My workouts are also based on my 15 years of experience as a strength and power coach to some of the World’s best athletes.

In an effort to find the ideal approach to training for myself, I am constantly seeking a balance between results and keeping my body healthy.

You will like this training philosophy if:

1. You’re looking to be fit and stay injury free.

2. Like me, you’re busy and your time is limited.

3. You want to stay lean and you’re looking for the biggest bang for your buck.

4. You are ok with leaving your name off the personal best lifting record board because you’ve been there, done that, and the record board is for the competitive athlete.

You won’t like this training philosophy if:

1. You’re attempting to relive your glory days or missed opportunities as an athlete and you’re wanting to hit personal best lifts in the gym.

2. You’re a competitive athlete with performance goals.

3. You’re a strength training rookie (i.e. you have less than one year’s experience in the gym)

4. You’re battling with an injury.

Basic Training Principles:

The basic principles are straightforward:

1. Use a combination of simple whole-body multi-joint movements in each workout.

2. Periodize your workouts, microcycles (5-7 day cycle) and mesocycles (2-4 week cycle) to provide optimal gains by alternating between periods of higher volume (extensification) and higher intensity (intensification).

3. Train to failure with maximal loads sparingly.

4. Manipulate rest intervals and tempo to achieve the training overload.

5. Use MSK-friendly movements whenever possible and avoid unnecessary  wear and tear on the joints.

6. No form of exercise is off limits.  The key to this program is obtaining a meaningful energy flux.  As long as you’re working and sweating, almost all exercise modalities from circuits to intervals to higher intensity strength training to steady state exercise is fair game.

I will try to contribute new workouts and ideas regularly.

Feel free to send me comments or feedback.

Train hard, and train smart.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE A MODERATE Reply

How much are you willing to give up for leanness?

For some individuals, the answer is: a lot.  There is no doubt that being lean and having single digit body fat numbers is a big ego boost for many people out there.  For some this comes easier than for others due to factors like good genetics.  For others, single digit body fat is truly a religion and an obsession.

The figure below represents the change in percent body fat over a lifetime for the Athlete, the Obsessed, the Moderate, the Obsessed but Inconsistent, and the Sedentary folk.  What I’m trying to show is the real difference consistency makes versus being obsessed, and where the real problems lie.

In an effort to hit single digit body fat numbers,the Obsessed resort to extreme measures.  Of course many of these measures are effective for getting down to single digit body fat numbers but at what price?  Obviously there are the simple pleasures in life that one must renounce such as a traditional morning coffee with the occasional chocolate croissant.  However, there are undoubtedly many other negative effects associated with extreme nutrition and fitness fads related to health and mental wellbeing.

As we get inundated with advertising and media showing us how we “ought” to look, the Obsessed but Inconsistent individuals really get the raw deal.  Not only must there be a constant feeling of  not measuring up to the industry standard but no doubt there is also a lot of failed attempts to hit an unattainable target.  The perpetual swings between periods of unsustainably high commitment and periods of low commitment add up resulting in a trend over a lifetime towards the slippery slope of increased body fat and decreased muscle tissue.  For the Obsessed but Inconsistent, the periods of extreme deprivation and extreme dieting can only be balanced with periods of extreme indulgence.

Then there are  the Moderates.  They employ simple strategies consistently that allow them to maintain body composition at a reasonable level over a lifetime.  The issue with the Moderate is that their story is nothing new and not overly interesting.  You can’t sell the Moderate approach whether that be in a book, online or in a seminar.  In fact, it seems as though the voice of the Moderate is rarely heard.  While the Moderate’s popularity may have died alongside the popularity of the VCR, the question should be asked whether or not the new iteration is a better alternative.  As far as the VCR goes, I’m going to say Apple TV is a big improvement.  However, I can’t say the same about the theories and beliefs espoused by the Obsessed, which appear to have silenced the Moderates.

The difference between the Moderate and the Obsessed is shown below in the green highlighted area.  This is what a lifetime of commitment to extreme measures will bring you.  As we progress through the lifespan, not a single person can entirely overcome  the forces of nature and aging.  Sadly, while there are few certainties in life, the cycle of birth, aging and death are non-negotiable.  Of course this can be mitigated with exercise/lifestyle, and the natural trend towards increased body fat and decreased muscle tissue can be attenuated.  The question is whether or not the shaded green zone is really worth depriving oneself of ALL the simple pleasures in life.  I will leave it up to you to decide for yourself.

The green highlighted zone also shows what being a Moderate won’t bring you.  Living your 20’s, 30’s and part of your 40’s with near single digit body fat can’t be attained with occasionally enjoying simple pleasures and indulging.  In order to accomplish this sacrifices must be made.  Extreme results require extreme measures.

The orange zone in the figure below represents what consistency can bring you and what inconsistency can’t bring you.  The ups and downs of the Obsessed but Inconsistent typically leads towards an overall increase in body fat with time.  However,  simple strategies like sweating regularly, eating a lower calorie diet with nutritious food, and still indulging once in a while will generally bring decent results over a lifetime.  The orange zone represents what the basics and staying the course bring to the table.

The red zone  is the real issue for North American society.  This is where the bulk of the scientific research is focused and it is often the ammunition used by the Obsessed to justify extreme fitness and nutrition approaches.  However, let’s be fair in recognizing that this problem is one that requires a complete change in attitudes and beliefs.

I also think the solution to this dilemma is more inline with the Moderate approach than the Obsessed approach.

 

BODY COMP OVER A LIFETIME

 

Why Measuring Peak Power Led Me Astray 2

So, here’s the context: I’m 24, just finishing my undergraduate degree and wanting to become a strength and conditioning coach for elite athletes.  At the time I’m broke and working nightshifts as a security guard at a Calgary hospital.  The job was mostly opening doors with a key chain the size of a small grapefruit, and the occasional burst of excitement when we had to restrain a drunk and disorderly incomer who got into a bar fight.

At this time I was searching for advice.  A great mentor said the following: (1) Read Lots; (2) Look the part; (3) Don’t waste your time testing power.

I listened to all three points, and two of them I stopped doing but for different reasons.

With regards to point number 1 this is incontestably  the best piece of advice of the three.

With regards to point number 2, my competitive weightlifting days are behind me, but I still manage to find the time for my daily lift.

With regards to point number 3, I ignored it at first.  I bought a jump mat (contact mat), I used a position transducer and I attempted to use a set of force plates to measure power for a solid 5 years.

This got me nowhere and then I listened to point number 3. I forgot about measuring power, and I regret it because I missed capturing information on a whole cohort of great Canadian athletes.

As time went on I realized that just tracking lifts in the gym was limiting my ability to measure the effectiveness of my training programs.

My testing parameters were not sensitive enough, and they were highly affected by technique and learning effects for the indicator lifts, which can parallel performance gains for a long time in an athlete’s career but will eventually taper off as an athlete reaches the highest level in his/her sport unless the sport is weightlifting.

It was at this time that I reverted back to more sensitive / “gold standard” testing, and my instrument of choice was the force plate because this is truly the gold standard for assessing strength and power.

There was a small learning curve as I tried to remember how to write a formula in Excel to integrate acceleration to obtain velocity but along with my buddy Scott Maw we figured it out.  It was sort of like a justification for 4 years of an undergraduate university education that so often feels like useless information you swear you’ll never use again.

Our major outcome variable was peak power in various forms of jumping.

If you search the literature on important strength qualities for athletes you will undoubtedly find that power is a critical variable.  Power is the time rate of work, and it’s the scalar product of force and velocity.  It’s an instantaneous quality.  Peak power is often reported in the literature as THE most important outcome measure for athletes with respect to resistance training.  For lower body dominant sports jumping is the movement that is often tested in the weight room to assess power.

I have measured mechanical peak power in various forms of jumping for lots and lots of athletes.  Here’s a breakdown of the relative peak power (W/kg) by sport and sex for many of the athletes that our group has trained.  There are lots of Olympic medalists included in this plot.

CLICK FOR PEAK POWER PLOT

The gist of things is obvious:  the athletes in the more explosive sports are generally more powerful in jumping.  If I broke the plot down by performance level you would see that power is also related to your level of performance with more elite athletes tending to be more powerful than development athletes.

As you look at this, let me remind you of the difference between correlation, and cause and effect.  A high degree of correlation means that two variables are related, and I have found that peak power correlates extremely well to performance in a variety of sports.

However, correlation does not imply that variable ‘x’, causes variable ‘y’.

So, this gets me back to Point #3 that was told to me early on in my career: “Don’t waste your time testing power.”

I followed the recommendation at first, then ignored it, and then went back to systematic testing.  Now I’m saying that peak power, in the vertical jump, while correlated with performance, is probably not the greatest metric for evaluating your program.

Here’s why:

(1) Peak power in a jump is heavily affected by fatigue and training stress so it will remain depressed for the majority of a training cycle.

(2) Peak power often does not improve at the same rate as competitive performance in many sports (i.e. you get a whole lot better in your sport than you do in a test of peak power in a jumping movement).

But the most important point is the following:

(3) Lots of athletes don’t participate in sports that require the optimization of peak muscular power or peak mechanical power.

If you consider this last statement carefully you will realize that peak power in a jump is hit somewhere around 400 ms (at a minimum) to likely a value of 500-700 ms (average of the dataset above) after the onset of the jump.

So, if the sport in question involves speed or acceleration (which most sports do), where contact times for the foot against the ground are 100-300 ms, peak power in a countermovement jump is not overly relevant.

In general, while correlated with performance, peak power in the jump is a poor indicator for a strength training program.

That is my opinion, and this is why measuring peak power led me astray.

In my next blog I will discuss some more sensitive metrics for evaluating a strength training program.

Focusing on the “Science” in Sport Science 3

I get the odd email here and there asking why I haven’t posted any blogs over the past several months.

The reason is pretty simple: I’m back in school working towards a PhD in Medical Science, and my spare time is spoken for with research and studying.

So, why would I choose to go back to school at this stage in the game?  My career was going well.  I was comfortable.  I could have kept focusing on growing my business.  However, I felt stagnant and my ultimate goal to contribute to the body of knowledge in sport science and to mentor and develop the next generation of strength and conditioning coach in our centre required me to get more training so that I could supervise Graduate students.

You may be thinking that a PhD seems like overkill for someone who is feeling stagnant.  I mean there are lots of ways that practitioners in the field of strength and conditioning and sport science try to remain fresh.

For example, I could have taken a professional development course… maybe a course on kettlebell training or something.

I could also attend a few more conferences and maybe double the numbers of hours I spend reading scientific articles.

However, I’m ready for something more.  I’m ready to test my theories and to expose what I have found to my peers for scrutiny and criticism.

I was once told that the only things you really know are those you study and find out for yourself.  

I think there is a lot of truth in this statement and if my ultimate goal is to add to the body of knowledge in sport science around the adaptive process to strength and power training, I have to move from an independent practitioner who can make as many unsubstantiated claims as he wishes to a real scientist of my craft.

This may seem like a bit of an idealist pursuit given my profession.  I mean let’s face it – strength and conditioning for elite sport and fitness are not exactly the most rigorous disciplines when it comes to delivering information that is unbiased and obtained with integrity.

The reality is that studying elite sport is challenging.  We have access to a very unique and small subject pool, and the classic double blind randomized control trial with a reasonable sample size of averagely trained individuals is highly limited in its application to elite sport.

In November, I presented at the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association’s International Conference on Strength Training.  At the banquet, Dan Baker, the very colourful and well-respected president of the ASCA, said to me: “If I see one more person trying to apply results from a study done on untrained college students to elite athletes I’m going to lose it!”.

We are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to studying the niche of high performance sport.

Sport science is tough to do well.  I know this firsthand because I’ve been dabbling in this field since 2003 by trying my best to quantify what really impacts the performance of my athletes. But, I do believe it’s possible.  The Australians do a great job of this and it’s no wonder they hit way above their weight in the Olympic Summer Games.

If I truly believe in advancing the body of knowledge in some sort of reputable and productive fashion then there is little room for having my sole sources of knowledge be that which I gained from someone’s blog, scientific publication or weekend certification course.

There comes a point in time when our theories and ideas need to be made into some sort of testable hypothesis.  The results of this test needs to be reported to our peers, scrutinized, and ultimately weighed against the current body of evidence.

This is the process that yields new paradigms and new ways of thinking that can stand the test of time.

I see this process unfolding everyday in my PhD research group.  Most of the group members are at the forefront of understanding the cellular and sub-cellular nature of muscular contraction.  The fruits of their research are challenging the boundary of knowledge and the theory around muscular contraction.

It’s inspiring to see the scientific process in its pure form as new phenomena are discovered.

Now this sounds like some sort of peaceful oasis of discovery and high fives but I can assure you it is far from this.

In fact, the other day I saw a very charismatic presentation by a notable scientist.  I have to admit I was somewhat taken by his presentation.  It just seemed to make sense, and much to my own personal disappointment I went from a mindset of critical thinking to acceptance.

Regrettably, I asked a question that was vague and had nothing to do with the data he presented.  A substantial amount of the question and answer period got consumed by his response, and we never really got into the important stuff.  I skipped the question that would have scrutinized his results and his conclusions, and went straight to the vague, brain candy, philosophical question…. my bad.

What he had presented was a nice concept… it was interesting, entertaining, and worthy of a spot on TV documentary… however, he did not adequately provide compelling evidence to support his conclusions.

What I can say upon careful reflection was that moving from a critical thinking mindset to one of acceptance is the kiss of death for anyone in a science based profession.  Acceptance of ideas, theories and results at face value has the potential to throw us very far off course.

Nothing in my research group is ever taken at face value.  There is this general feeling that even if the group finds something novel that it MUST be independently verified by other research groups before it is seen as a fact.

The group presents data and rigorously dissects every aspect of the methodology, results, and conclusions.

Could the presenter really measure what he or she intended to measure?

Does the measurement technique provide adequate precision?

Do the numbers make sense?

I mean do the numbers really make sense?

Just because a confidence interval or p-value gets reported or a really pretty plot with nice colours and convincing trends gets shown, no one, I mean no one in the group takes it at face value.

I am always amazed and impressed at the questions and criticisms that arise from my supervisor following what seems to be a very convincing presentation.

The skill of diving into the methods and results of a study, critically thinking about what has been presented, and asking yourself “is this really the case?”  is one that needs to be continually developed and fostered within a group.

Failing to rigorously scrutinize our peers’ work leads many sport scientists and strength coaches astray.  Not only are we bombarded by shoddy one-off studies that are taken in isolation but we are also exposed to guru knowledge.

  • I bench 800 lbs so I’m an expert.
  • I’m 4% body fat so I’m an expert.
  • I power clean 180 kg so I’m an expert.
  • I train a professional athlete in a highly skill based sport like NHL hockey or NFL football so I’m an expert.

We stop considering the body of evidence, boundary of knowledge, and where the claims and conclusions fit with what is known.

We start skipping to the Practical Applications or Conclusion section of a single paper as the final authority on a training method, nutritional strategy or physiological mechanism.

We never ask to see the results slide again to ask the question: “Do your conclusions actually fit with what your data shows?”

In short, we just trust that what the presenter, study, recommendations, or expert claims can be taken at face value.

I call this the Headline Science Syndrome.  Here’s how it works on a large scale:

  • A one-liner title gets bounced out into twitter-ville referencing some dramatic conclusion.
  • “A new study shows a relationship between variable x and variable y!”
  • The buzz happens on email and in conversations.
  • It hits the mainstream media and gets air time just after the segment on all the horrors in the world and before the video of a golden retriever who can bark the alphabet.
  • The segment ends and those who have just consumed this nugget of “information” in one single whole bite without any sort of active digesting are left questioning their very existence and how everything they have come to know to this point can be completely wrong.

For the strength coach it is tempting to just read the conclusions of a scientific paper and to take it at face value.  It’s great to sit back and to consume information like a snake eating a rat….you swallow it whole and leave the digestion to a later time point by some sort of passive process.  Screw the active digestion where you examine and scrutinize what has been presented.

Gluttonously consuming information in this fashion makes us feel like we are learning something.  It’s brain candy.  It gives us something to tweet, cite, quote, and throw out to the world as fact with very little downside in terms of effort and absolutely ZERO upside in terms of helping to advance anyone’s understanding of the body of knowledge.

I’m going to suggest that a true scientist of his craft will not only take the time to chew his “information meal” thoroughly but that he will also attempt to test his empirically obtained theories and beliefs in some sort of systematic method.

I think it is fair to say that science is not the be all and end all… I would be the first to attest to this.  Science will always trail behind what happens in the gym and on the field.  Empirical evidence will always be easier to obtain.

However, the important step is to transfer what we observe empirically into some sort of testable hypothesis to see if what we observe through our experience really holds up not just in our own studies but through the rigorous scientific study of others.

The ensuing evaluation of the results of our own studies and the studies of others needs to be rigorous and heavily focused on how the study was done, the numbers that came about, and whether or not the numbers really support the conclusions.

It is only in this way that we can truly advance the body of knowledge in sport science, and ensure the Science stays front and centre in Sport Science.

Endurance Athletes – You Need Strength and Power!! Reply

I have been working with the elite endurance athletes for over 15 years.  My client list includes several Olympic gold medalists and World Championship medalists in long distance speed skating and cross country skiing.

When I first started working with the Canadian Cross Country Ski Team in 2004, I brought my experience working with elite long distance speed skaters to the table.

What was my approach with a long distance speed skater? It was simple: I focused on technical acquisition in key exercises like squatting, Olympic lifting, and various types of jumps.  Once the athletes were technically proficient I emphasized maximal muscular strength, and maximal muscular power or explosive strength.

When I started working with the cross country ski team, the previous approach had been pretty typical of what I see from a lot of trainers who simplistically analyze a sport and attempt to build a “sport specific” strength program:

  1. They attempted to mimic movements in cross country skiing with seemingly similar looking weight room exercises
  2. They used high repetition schemes to build strength endurance because skiing is an endurance sport
  3. They emphasized stability exercises because skiers are often hurt and skiing requires balance.

On all accounts I could not have disagreed more wholeheartedly.

First of all, if you were to measure the muscle activity in the SAME movement done over multiple repetitions, no two movements would be the same!  The logic that because an exercise “looks” like a movement in a sport it is inherently more specific and a better way to improve function is ludicrous and unfounded.  Apparent similarity between a sport skill and an exercise has nothing to do with specificity in 99% of circumstances.

Second, high repetitions schemes result in considerable metabolic stress, long-term fatigue, and even have the potential to INCREASE muscle hypertrophy! A lot of skiers were baffled that their 8-12 RM approach to resistance training actually had a better chance of increasing muscle mass than 2-3 sets of 2-4 RM.

Third, there is a HUGE difference between training balance and using exercises that require balance.  If you want to train balance your environment or connection with the ground needs to be continually unpredictable and random.  Once you’ve mastered standing on a balance board, guess what?? This exercise now requires balance it does not train balance!

With that said, I rarely see exercises requiring balance as a suitable way to prevent the overuse injuries that are typically sustained by a cross country skier.  A skier typically requires a good soft tissue therapist to keep restricted muscle groups and fascial connections free so that joints can move properly, and balanced muscular strength around joints.

So how do you change a sports philosophy?  The short answer: you use science.

I went to the scientific literature and found some great research done out of Norway by a guy named Jan Hoff.  Dr. Hoff has published extensively on the effects of resistance training on elite cross country skiers and runners.

Here’s the Cole’s Notes of his research.

Three things go into elite endurance performance:

  1. Maximal oxygen consumption (VO2Max), which is best trained with intervals done in the range of 2-4 minutes.
  2. Lactate threshold.
  3. Efficiency – you measure efficiency by the amount of oxygen consumed at a given workload.

Dr. Hoff took elite skiers and put them through a training program reminiscent of what a shot putter or sprinter would do.  Heavy squats, heavy pull ups, and an adapted pull-down movement with a pulley.  The loading was anywhere from 4×4 to 3×5 RM with the athletes being encouraged to maximally accelerate the load on each and every repetition (this trains explosive strength).

Here were the findings:

  • The athletes who replaced normal training volume with the above mentioned resistance training got stronger and did not increase lean body mass
  • The resistance trained athletes improved their time to exhaustion at a given workload by significantly more than the athletes who did conventional high repetition resistance training
  • The conclusion: the development of maximal muscular strength improved efficiency and economy of movement for the skiers, which positively affected one of the key determinants of endurance performance!!

Here is a short summary of my philosophy:

  • Train what’s on the inside.
  • Train what you can’t see (i.e. the neuromuscular system and the connection from the Brain to the Muscle).  
  • Always design a strength and power program around the physiology of the neuromuscular system and let the sport take care of the specificity!

Now back to my story.  I have presented this data at coaching symposiums several times, and the reality is the sale’s job was tough.

Many scoffed at what I was saying and decided to stick with their conventional approach and ignored the science.

A few jumped on board with what I was saying…. one of these athletes, Chandra Crawford, went on to win an Olympic gold medal in 2006.

After 2010, a coaching change brought a very experienced and knowledgeable American coach to Canada.

The coach essentially re-interviewed me for my position.

He wanted to know my philosophy on strength training for elite cross country skiers.

I reluctantly went back over my experience, the science, and my philosophy that elite endurance athletes ABSOLUTELY need to focus on maximal muscular strength and maximal muscular power.

I told him that I envisioned a program that first of all developed technical proficiency in key lifts, structural tolerance, and balanced inter-muscular strength around key joints.

I then told him that I believed in focusing on developing maximal muscular strength and maximal muscular power with jumps, Olympic lifts, variants of the squat, variants of the pull up, and some form of press.  I know it’s boring – but it’s what I believe!

I told him I believed the sessions needed to be kept short and focused, and in order to minimize the potential negative interaction with his first priority of training the energy systems, that we should use careful monitoring to track neuromuscular fatigue.

The conclusion of our meeting was music to my ears – he completely agreed with me and told me that if I had answered the question any other way, he would have been searching for another strength and conditioning coach.

After 2.5 years of close collaboration between all of the experts that surround the team the results have started to speak for themselves.  The team had over 25 medals at international competition last year.

There is no question that my influence is just a very small part of the big picture and I do not want to overstate the amount I contribute.

But even though strength and power training is such a small part of a skier’s program it has the potential to reek an amazing amount of havoc with training.

Finally, by answering the question of “how do I best train an endurance athlete” with a physiological answer, I think you stand the best chance of really improving performance.

References

Hoff, J. (2006). Muscular Strength Training Effects on Aerobic Endurance Performance. Proceedings for the 6th International Strength Training Conference. Copenhagen, Denmark. 

Olympic Lifts 101 – Getting Full Extension in the Hang Split Snatch Reply

Performing Olympic lifts from a hang position is an excellent way to work on the mechanics of the transition phase (i.e. when the bar crosses the knee until the bar hits mid-thigh), and the very explosive second phase of the pull (i.e. when the bar passes mid-thigh until the athlete achieves a fully extended hip/knee/ankle position).

However, training Olympic lifts from the hang can sometimes be tricky because athletes often employ a technique for a hang clean or hang snatch that is completely different from the mechanics required to lift the most efficiently and powerfully from the floor.

Nevertheless, performing Olympic lifts from a hang position is great way to develop explosive strength for athletes especially if a strength coach can “coach” the lift properly.

Of all the variants of the hang Olympic lifts, one of my favourites is the hang split snatch.  Here are a few reasons why it is a top pick in my program:

– It is technically demanding and challenging

– It is excellent for teaching an athlete how to “get under” the bar

– Just like the other Olympic lifts it is great for building lower body explosive strength

– Catching and sticking the landing in a split stance is a great progression towards heavier more demanding eccentric training, which is a big part of my Specialization Phase

However, the hang split snatch does have some subtle nuances the most significant of which is getting full extension in the second phase of the pull.

One of the most common causes for this is that the athlete rushes the second phase of the pull to get the lower limbs into the split position.  The athlete’s brain is just 10-20 msec ahead of what is actually happening.  This mistake is easy to pick up on video.

A second reason for failing to reach full extension has to do with the set up of the hang position.  Incidentally, this technical error can occur in any of the hanging Olympic lifts.

Oftentimes, if an athlete is left up to his own devices to solve the motor problem of performing a hanging Olympic lift, he will sit into the start position (Figure 1).

This often feels like a more powerful starting position because there is flexion at the hip and knee joint, which are prime movers for this exercise.

The downside is that once the movement is initiated, a combination of the trunk rotation and poor timing make it nearly impossible for the athlete to hit that triple extended position (green lines in Figure 1).

You can clearly see in Figure 1 that the athlete’s shoulders in the start position (blue lines) are behind the bar and his knees are flexed.  As he moves to the peak acceleration phase (yellow lines) his position is completely wrong, and this leads to incomplete extension at the end of the second phase of the pull.

I often see strength coaches trying to fix this by telling an athlete to “get taller” or to “get your hips through” but  as long as the start position is off this will never happen.

A third reason for failing to reach full extension in the hang split snatch is rushing the transition phase or scoop.  As you can see in Figure 2, the athlete has a decent starting position.  The knees are relatively extended and the shoulders are ahead of the bar.

She begins the scoop correctly by pushing the knees under the bar and transitioning to the start of the second phase of the pull.  However, she rushes the transition and reaches peak acceleration in the second phase of the pull too soon.

As a result she never reaches full extension at the hip joint and the barbell begins to travel away from her centre of mass.  Not only does this technical error really diminish an athlete’s ability to properly train explosive strength (because full hip extension is never reached) but it also leads to a very circular bar path as the athlete attempts to catch the bar.

With that said, what does proper execution of the hang split snatch look like?

Figure 3 provides a pretty good depiction of the starting position, transition (scoop), and the second phase of the pull.

The starting position with the blue lines shows the athlete’s shoulders over the bar and a relatively extended knee position.

The transition is initiated with a combination of extension at the hip and flexion at the knee (yellow lines).

She is now in a very powerful position and can produce a very large vertical ground reaction force.

As the second phase of the pull terminates (green lines) she hits triple extension or full extension at the hip/knee/ankle.

In summary, the hang split snatch is a great exercise for developing lower body explosive strength but just like all the Olympic lifts, it requires a bit of coaching expertise.

Now there are far better Olympic lifting coaches than myself.  I competed in a few weightlifting competitions, and trained for several years at it but I would still consider myself an average Olympic lifting coach.

But you don’t need to be a world class Olympic lifting coach to use these exercises with your athletes.  As shown above, simple technical cues and pointers can go a long way to get the most out of these exercises.

If you have questions or comments, please post them below.

I promise I’ll do a better job this week of responding to questions and posting any comments!

Train hard.

Multifidus Activation – A Cornerstone to my Warm Up and Activation Protocol Reply

When I first started out as a strength and conditioning coach I struggled the most with helping athletes rehabilitate from lower back injuries.

This is not the sort of thing you learn in school.

This is not the sort of thing in which the average strength coach is well trained.

As I learned more about lower back injuries I began reading Dr. Stu McGill’s work (as all strength coaches should) and attended one of his seminars.

At the time I was also attentively focusing on the research coming out of Australia from Richardson and colleagues who were focusing on the deep spinal stabilizers including transverse abdominus, multifidus, the pelvic floor, and other spinal rotators.

The gist of it is as follows:

The spine can be compared to a fishing rod standing on the ground end to end. If you push on the rod it buckles. If you attach guy wires at 360 degrees and tension them equally the structure has stability. The spine and its musculature are analogous to this.

In addition to the large muscles that provide spinal stability there is also stability provided to each segment of the spine provided by smaller muscles.

This form of stability is called segmental stability.

The muscles that provide segmental stability are the ones closest to the spine or the paraspinal muscles.

These muscles are rich in muscle spindles (i.e. stretch receptors) and provide stiffness for unexpected movements.

In a healthy spine these muscles do their job. They react to unexpected challenges, create tension, and provide protective stiffness.

In the event of a spinal injury, structural damage, inflammation, and the ensuing pain, these muscle change both morphologically and neurologically.

The long story short is that they shut down.

There is much controversy in the literature over the importance of these deep paraspinal muscles to lower back health but in my experience they are critical.

What I have observed is as follows: with training stress, emotional stress, and mechanical stress (e.g. sitting in a slouched position) these muscles change.

The change is palpable.

Now sometimes the word palpable is figurative. For example, you might say the tension in the room was “palpable”.

But what I’m saying is that you can actually feel a change in these muscles in an individual who knows how to recruit the paraspinal muscles.

The details of how to do this is beyond the scope of this blog but let’s suffice it to say that if you have the right therapist or strength coach cueing an athlete along with real time ultrasound most athletes can learn how to recruit the deep paraspinal muscles.

Recruitment of these muscles should be symmetric (i.e. the same left to right) both in terms of the amount and timing of recruitment.

Bilateral asymmetry occurs as an athlete becomes fatigued and I believe injuries can be avoided by paying attention to this subtle change.

If an athlete has never been taught how to recruit the deep paraspinal muscles, real time ultrasound can be a very useful tool. It can help identify bilateral asymmetries.

Once an athlete has been trained to feel the “right” way to make the deep paraspinal muscles work , an acute dysfunction can be easily detected.

It’s because of this acute response of the deep paraspinal muscles to fatigue and training stress that it has become a critical component of my warm up and activation protocols.

I include paraspinal muscle assessments and activation in all my warm ups.

My athletes are all trained with real time ultrasound to palpate activation of the deep paraspinal muscles.

If my athletes notice an asymmetry based on their own palpation I check it immediately.

If I observe it as well, I then have them perform a series of activation drills.

If they are unable to get things firing I send them to my therapist to get things working.

If we can’t get the system back on-line I modify my program.

Modifications may include cutting the athlete’s volume (i.e. reducing the total number of maximal sets) or modifying the movement (e.g. changing a full back squat to a full depth step up) to decrease lumbar spine loading.

To summarize here are the steps I would employ:

1. Know your athletes!

2. Hook them up with real time ultrasound to image the activation of the deep paraspinal muscles.

3. Teach the athlete to palpate the muscles so they know what the right activation feels like and the wrong activation.

4. Practice this and re-evaluate with real time ultrasound… the reality is that recruiting these muscles is difficult and the athletes will require lots of motor learning (practice!). By the way, this is where most physios go wrong… they spend 20 minutes with a patient teaching them to recruit these muscles and then leave them to their own devices… inevitably, patients revert back to bad habits without proper practice and the right feedback.

5. Integrate a parapsinal check into your program. Have the athlete perform this prone or side lying.

6. Teach them to look for bilateral asymmetries.

7. If a bilateral asymmetry presents, have them perform activation exercises to get things on-line again.

8. If you can’t get things working, modify the program!

Hopefully you find this advice helpful.

I can assure you this is one of the most important parts of my warm up and also my Quotidian Movement Screen (QMS) that I have discussed in previous blogs.

Conditioning for MMA and Combative Sports – How to Not Gas Out! 3

I am a big fan of combative sports, and I have always taken a special interest in training fighters.

Recently, I was asked some specific questions on how I train one of my athletes.  I think they were hoping to hear about some flashy out-of-this-world exercise or a unique training device that had never been seen in the fitness world.

Unfortunately I have nothing to share in this department because generally speaking I stick to the basics.  I am a firm believer in trying to affect the physiology of the athlete, and I do not attempt to mimic what I see happening in the sport.

I let the sport take care of the specificity and I try to improve the physiology whether that be maximal strength, maximal muscular power, elastic (reactive) strength, structural tolerance and motor ability, the power of the anaerobic glycolytic system, maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 Max), or the maximal power of the aerobic system.

– If an athlete needs maximal strength development we squat heavy weights for less than 5 reps

– If an athlete needs maximal muscular power we lift moderately heavy weights very explosively

– If an athlete needs elastic strength we bound and jump

– If an athlete needs structural tolerance we link with a good therapist and focus on mobilizing areas of restriction and activating sluggish muscle groups

– If an athlete needs to develop the anaerobic glycolytic system (20-90s) we do high intensity intervals

But what if an athlete needs to develop the power of the aerobic system? Then what?

Well the personal trainer in your local gym is going to tell you that if you blast off a high intensity circuit focused on full body strength exercises you will develop your “cardio”.

If you read an issue of the most popular fitness magazine they will tell you to NOT do long aerobic capacity training because it will decrease your muscle mass and increase muscle catabolism. (By the way, this is a total fallacy – I can promise you this. I have tons of athletes who do lots and lots of aerobic training combined with the right type of strength training and put on lots of muscle).

If they saw the world of human performance through my eyes they would start by asking “how do I best affect an athlete’s physiology?”.

If they scoured the scientific literature and interviewed the world’s best coaches the answer to this question would be: “Focus on the basics and focus on training strategies that work – don’t worry about bells and whistles like breathing through a straw or buying a $10,000 tent – focus on basic training methods that are hard, effective, and proven in sports that demand this form of energy production”.

As I mentioned above, I’m all about the basics.  My belief in the basics is rock solid but this weekend, after spending time with the Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team,  the rock solid foundation just got reinforced.

My day on Friday started out with a skate ski in Mount Bachelor.  As I was stumbling around the 5 km loop I realized that the metrics a strength coach uses to judge his athletes is so myopic.  These skiers are in incredible shape and their sport demands muscular power, maximal strength, and extreme cardiovascular power and capacity.

They are phenomenal athletes who do more in a single training day than many of us will do in 10-days.  They have power.  They have strength. But most impressively they can absolutely haul ass anywhere for anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes.  It’s actually incredible.

At the start of this blog I mentioned that I was asked how I approached the training program design for a combative athlete.

If we take boxing, athletes fight 10-12 x 3 minute rounds with 1 minute rest.  An MMA fighter fights anywhere from 3×5 minute rounds with 1 minute rest up to 5×5 minute rounds with 1 minute rest.

Let me tell you that the 1 minute rest is doing nothing for your physiological recovery.  If you are gassed after 5 minutes, I can promise you that at 6 minutes you will still be gassed – it’s merely enough time to get the blood wiped off your face and to have a sip of water.

If you are doing the math you are probably saying: “How can a combative athlete produce as much power as possible over 15 to 36 minutes so that the first round’s power output is the same as the 5th round?”

When I say power output I’m referring to the power of the aerobic energy system.  I’m not talking about maximal muscular power (e.g. a maximum power clean or vertical jump).

I’m also not talking about the anaerobic energy system because no matter how hard you train, this energy system is limited.  If you’re blood lactate goes above 10 mmol it doesn’t matter how fit you are you will fatigue.  The key is producing big power outputs but also being able to keep your blood lactate levels to a minimum.

When I approach this problem I look to sports where the cardiovascular demands are similar.  What parallels 15 to 36 minutes of continuous high intensity full body cardiovascular energy production?  I’m sure there are a few answers to this question but a standout in my mind is cross country skiing.

As luck should have it, I happened to run into one of the world’s top cross country ski coaches this weekend in Bend, Oregon.  His name is Tor Bjorn.  He’s coached Olympic Medalists in cross country skiing, and he has an impressive pedigree in high performance sport.

And there’s one more thing… he’s a huge MMA and combative sport fan.

After we finished our ski session I started picking his brain on how he improves an athlete’s power output for a 5 to 25 minute event.  The reason I asked him this question is that he is an expert in this department, and he had surprising insights into what he thought a fighter should do.

I just need to remind you that the Norwegians are powerhouses in the sport of cross country skiing, and the approach of top coaches like Tor Bjorn are all about affecting the athlete’s physiology.  Improving VO2 Max is critical, and interval sessions focused on the power of the aerobic system are the cornerstone of the training program.

Contrary to interval sessions that are typically seen in the fitness world, which are very very intense and involve substantial strength endurance, these sessions are carefully prescribed, and are carefully progressed within and between training sessions.

In fact, as I sat and watched Tor coach an interval session I suddenly realized how much detail was going into every aspect of the session.  I always thought I was particular and specific about how an athlete was to perform an interval session.  I am very strict on ensuring the intervals are done according to plan.  However, Tor took this to a completely different level.

This interval session had so many layers.  There was a psychological layer, a competition specific layer but at the heart of the session was the physiological layer.

According to Tor each properly performed interval session offers the potential of a modest 0.25 ml/kg/min improvement in VO2 Max. Using this scientific estimation it could be said that 12-15 interval sessions are required to result in a noticeable improvement in VO2 Max.  Done at a frequency of 2x/week, this means a training block has to last somewhere between 8-20 weeks.

As we discussed the training methods that are often shown in TV documentaries he quietly scoffed at what he has seen.  He has heard the claims about altitude training, high intensity intervals and all sorts of other methods, and what he observes are athletes who still gas out too quickly.

Why does this happen? Well in Tor Bjorn’s world, the athletes lack one critical ingredient: power in the aerobic energy system.

His formula for training an MMA fighter would be quite simple:

1. Improve efficiency and technical ability.  This means it doesn’t cost you a ridiculous amount of energy to do your sport – so, plan specific sessions that really tax your ability to be efficient.

2. Improve maximal muscular power and maximal muscular strength. By improving these qualities you give yourself another gear, and this in and of itself improves efficiency.  It’s obvious as well that most combative athletes would benefit greatly from being strong and powerful.

3. Improve VO2 Max.

Improving VO2 Max is a key in his mind to making sure you have the gas tank to last 15-25 minutes.  Without a huge VO2 Max you are starting a fight 20 meters behind your competition, assuming your competition has trained properly.

As our day wrapped up in Bend, Oregon I felt as though my approach to sticking to the basics had been validated.

However, the key message is that the basics need to be done properly.  You can’t get the program 80% or even 95% right.  It has to be done 100% correctly each time for the benefits to be gained.  Skipping out will result in sub par results.

As far as I see it, the basics rule the training world…. you just need to make sure the basics are done perfectly.

Back to the Blog Reply

For those who follow my blog entitled Training Insights I apologize for not being more productive recently.

My lack of productivity is three-fold.

First, you may notice that the look of the blog has changed.  iWeb, my former blogging application is nearly extinct.  This has left me searching for the ideal application but my search quickly led to procrastination.  So, I purchased a keyboard for my iPap, kept it simple, and chose an application that I can use across all my devices in the hopes that this would increase my opportunities to write.

Second, I have been heavily involved with data collection for my PhD.  For anyone who has done research you will know that a tremendous amount of time goes into setting up your research methodology, collecting and analyzing data, and reading related research.

The reality is that with my professional obligations I’m left with very little time to get this done.  The end result is that when I’m having coffee, out for a run, or if I get some time to myself, my brain is usually on a rapid simmer as I strategize on my research, which has reduced the time I have to just write for the sake of writing.

I realize that some may see this as a boring way to spend one’s time but I couldn’t disagree more.  I love it.  I think the pursuit of new knowledge and understanding is one of the greatest things that humans can do.

Obviously this can come in different forms from reading about another individual’s work, attending seminars and simply being a careful observer of one’s own work but to truly test your assumptions and beliefs in a systematic and scientific manner is the epitome of generating new knowledge.  I’m definitely not the smartest guy on the planet but I’m incessantly curious, and I find the process of systematically answering a question fascinating.

Finally, all of my Olympic bound athletes are gearing up for another training season as they enter the pre-Olympic year leading to the winter Olympics in Sochi 2014.  While this is not the same as the pressure cooker all the London 2012 athletes are currently experiencing, the pre-Olympic year is critical in an athlete’s development.  As such, all of the athletes and sports with whom I work have turned up the intensity as have I.

In fact, as I write I am sitting on a plane en route to Bend, Oregon for a few days with the Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team.  The next few days will include lots of time on snow in the mountains just outside of Bend, and some close collaboration with Shayne Hutchins, the team’s soft tissue therapist, as we fine tune our approach with each athlete.

The fact that my office for the next few days will be in the mountains of Bend for some skiing, and collaboration with one of Canada’s best therapists for the sole purpose of helping Canadian athletes achieve the dream of an Olympic medal is something that does not go unappreciated.  Very few get to pursue a goal for the sake of the goal, and very few get to help out in this process.

Opportunities to work with guys like Shayne are rare, and there is no doubt that much of what I have learned in my career has been through the eyes of others.  The reason for the rarity is that guys like Shayne are rare.  He has a powerful mind and he is exceptionally skilled.  He also has an ego that is in check.

In general terms my impression of the world of human performance is that skill set or maybe the outside perception of skill set is directly proportional to the size of the ego, and indirectly proportional to the health of the ego.

True professional collaboration demands an exceptional skill set and a healthy ego because the risk of being wrong is extremely high.  A healthy ego is what permits an individual to not take “being wrong” personally, and to instead see it as a learning opportunity.

The reality is that many of the truly impacting professionals in human performance and high performance sport aren’t known on the internet or in blogs because they are too busy in the trenches using their craft and expanding their understanding.

It’s not their style to talk about what they know because you will often find these individuals talking and obsessing about what they don’t know.

Not only am I fortunate to have had a career that rarely feels like work but I am also fortunate to have a strong network of likeminded professionals who have kept me humble and on the straight and arrow.

So, on that note, I plan to get back into my groove with the training insights I gather along the way from the weight room, the lab, and from the experts that surround me.

Elastic Strength Development – The Biomechanics and Neurophysiology of the Jump Reply

Elastic strength development (ESD) is a critical speed strength quality for the elite athlete.  It can also be tied into fitness goals and can even benefit the aging human.  In this article, I am going to review the different phases of a jump, and some of the biomechanical and neurophysiological considerations for the jump.

As I wrote in my first article in this series entitled Plyometric Training – The Most Incorrectly Used Phrase in Training, elastic strength development (ESD) is often incorrectly referred to as plyometrics.

As I explained in this original article, plyometric (pliometric) refers to muscle lengthening actions, miometric refers to muscle shortening actions, and isometric refers to muscle actions with no change in muscle length.  To be scientifically accurate, I won’t use the word Plyometric as it is conventionally used but feel free to bastardize our profession and continue using this word as you wish.  I won’t hold it against you.

In its pure form jumping, which is a staple movement for ESD, involves movements with a rapid pliometric action (eccentric muscle action) followed by a rapid miometric muscle action (concentric muscle action).  This cyclical movement is often referred to as a stretch-shorten-cycle (SSC), and SSC’s are a big part of sport and life.

For example, take the sports of running, hockey, and slalom skiing.  All sports are very distinct in terms of the direction of the ground reaction forces, the corresponding joint torques, and the speed of the movement but one common thread is that they also include movements that require a rapid switching between muscle shortening and lengthening actions.  It is for this reason that jumping movements are often used as a training method in the physical preparation process for a whole range of sports.

Further analysis of a SSC reveals the following distinct phases.  The first phase is often referred to as the Initial Momentum Phase.  This is the phase in which the athlete’s centre of mass is moving with the force of gravity as their centre of mass descends towards the ground.

The second phase is the Ground Contact Phase.  The ground contact phase represents the initial touch down on the ground, which is immediately followed by the Amortization Phase in which the athlete produces a pliometric (eccentric) muscle action to effectively break the continuation of the initial momentum phase.

Following the amortization phase, the athlete performs a rapid miometric (concentric) muscle action.  This explosive and rapid muscle shortening leads to the Final Momentum Phase where the athlete overcomes gravitational forces and leaves the ground.

I’ve provided a visual of these phases.  Figures 1-3 are pictures of an athlete going through each phase.  Figure 1 is the initial momentum phase, Figure 2 is ground contact and the amortization phase, and Figure 3 is midway through the final momentum phase.

For those of you who are a bit more scientific, I’ve also included the ground reaction force of a subject performing a countermovement jump on a force plate (Figure 4).  The ground reaction force (the curve that you see) can be looked at as the resulting forces measured where the foot contacts the ground.  This is the sum of all the muscle forces from the different joints involved in the jump (hip, knee and ankle).

Some of the important observations include the phase in which muscle forces are produced to absorb energy (amortization phase), the phase in which muscle force is produced to overcome gravitational forces (miometric phase and final momentum phase), and the flight phase where the athlete is airborne. You will also notice a large spike in force when the athlete returns to the ground, which represents another initiation of the amortization phase.

Further analysis and consideration of this graph reveals the following important technical considerations for a jump:

The Amortization Phase

The amortization phase is critical to the proper execution of a jump.  This phase is often referred to as the reactive ability or the ability to rapidly switch from a muscle lengthening action to a muscle shortening action.

The important physiological contributors are: the storage and return of elastic energy in connective tissue, spinal reflex mediation (e.g. stretch reflex), and muscular strength.

In most circumstances the total time of the amortization phase is to be kept as short as possible.  This allows for the the greatest contribution from the release of elastic energy and spinal reflexes, which essentially add to the muscle forces to further increase the jump height.

The amortization phase needs to be addressed with proper cueing and technical development.

Total Impulse or Area Under the Curve

Another important observation is the area under the curve.  This represents the impulse or the total magnitude of the ground reaction force, which is the sum of the joint torques from the contributing muscles, spinal mediated reflex muscle actions, and the release of elastic energy.

The total impulse is a very important performance variable.  The flight phase is a result of the total impulse.  This means that the bigger the impulse, the more momentum that is produced, and the higher the jump height.

The impulse at various segments of the jump also provide an excellent metric for monitoring neuromuscular fatigue.  I may address this in another blog but the truth of the matter is this is very complicated and advanced.  If you are interested in this for your athletes, contact me to take an advanced course in monitoring and assessing neuromuscular fatigue through my internship program!

Total Ground Contact Time

The ground contact time (GCT), which is the sum of the amortization phase and the miometric phase, is a very important component of a jump.  In fact elastic strength development and jumps are often classified according to the ground contact times.  Long contact jumps are ones with a contact time of 300-500 msec, medium contact jumps are ones with a contact time of 150-300 msec, and short contact jumps are ones with a ground contact time of 150 msec or less.

Often the periodization of elastic strength development is done such that the volume of jumps (often referred to as “The Number of Contacts”) is organized with respect to the ground contact time.

The largest volume of long contact jumps occurs early in the preparatory period, and the largest volume of short contact jumps occurs in later in phases of the preparatory period (i.e. specific preparatory phase).  However, within a microcycle (5-10 day period) short contact jumps are generally performed first as this type of jumping requires that the athlete be in a more rested state.

Yielding or Reactive Strength

The final consideration is the large ground reaction force that occurs upon impact after the jump.  This peak ground reaction force upon landing provides evidence in support of proper jumping technique and physical preparation to prevent jumping related injuries.

To put this in layman’s terms: muscle lengthening actions (pliometric/eccentric) are associated with large muscular forces. Without proper mechanics and physical preparation injuries often ensue.  These injuries include stress fractures, tendonitis, lower back pain, patellofemoral pain syndrome, and lower leg compartment syndromes.

In summary, elastic strength development and its most commonly used exercise (jumping) is more complicated that it may seem.  There are many considerations that go into the jump from a technical and cueing perspective, to a program planning and periodization perspective, and lastly to a biomechancial and neurophysiological perspective.

What I attempted to show in this blog are the distinct phases of the jump: the initial momentum phase, the amortization phase, the mimometric and final momentum phase, and the flight phase.  All aspects of the jump have their nuances, their important technical considerations, and can be trained individually with various exercises.

In my next blog I will talk about some of the important technical considerations around jumping and elastic strength development.

In the mean time, if you have questions don’t hesitate to contact me.  I will also be running an internship on testing and monitoring neuroumuscular fatigue in the new year, and offer a weekend course on Elastic Strength Development.

www.jordanstrength.com